Category Archives: Uncategorized

Behind Every Good Missionary there’s a Mother: In Praise of Mums (especially mine)

People sometimes tell me they’re proud of me moving to Japan. Or that they’re encouraged and inspired by me following God’s calling out here. I really appreciate those thoughts and I don’t want to dismiss them, but I do want to deflect at least some of the praise. Because I think that often mums get overlooked. We admire the ones who take risks and who leave their homes behind. But we overlook the mums who made sure that there was a home to leave in the first place.

Maybe we even think that you have to be one of those adventurers in order to make a change in the world. We can buy into the thinking that balanced people never achieved anything. We believe thoughts like this quote by Danielle Strickland (a worker for the Salvation Army),

“I’ve looked all through scripture and church history for people who did significant things for the Kingdom and none of them exhibited any signs of balance.”

Now I’ve been really challenged and inspired by stuff that Danielle has said and done, but here I couldn’t disagree more. I think she’s made the mistake of looking only at the boys and girls who left home, and overlooked the mothers who let them go. The mothers who cared for, nurtured, raised, protected, and generally mothered their children so they were strong enough to go on crazy adventures without losing their heads.

Now sure, I can’t talk for everyone, but my mum at least is one of the most balanced people I know. Sure, she’s quirky. All the best people are. But she’s still balanced. Not one to kick up a fuss. Happy to spend her afternoon with a book and a cup of tea (as long as the cup gets refilled about twice an hour). She knits and bakes. She writes poetry and takes my nephews to feed the ducks. She stayed at home and raised me and my two sisters when my dad was in places like Belize and Iraq.

And I’m not a sailor but I know that if a ship doesn’t have ballast then it’ll get overwhelmed incredibly easily. Ballast is crucial, but it’s exactly the sort of boring thing that I would forget if I was planning to set sail across the ocean. And it’s exactly the sort of thing that a mother would prepare, without even raising a fuss about the fact she secretly stopped her son from being overwhelmed by the storms of life.

Yup, I most certainly would not have made it this far without my mum.

Moving out to Japan means I get asked the same questions over and over. One of the most common one is, ‘Where are you from?’ It’s been a tough question for me to answer, because I moved around growing up so I can’t readily point to a place that I consider to be my hometown.

But as I was thinking of this post, I realised that I do know where my home is. The reason why I had trouble thinking of where I’m from–where my home is–is because I had been trying to think of a place I call home. But my home isn’t a place, it’s a person: my mum.

Yes, it is mothers who have done some of the most significant things for this world. And so today I want to honour my mother. For all of the ballast and balance she has put into my life. For giving me–no, for being my home.

Thanks mum, you’re awesome, and I love you.

Me and my mum in Japan

In Japan Christmas is over, and for me so is cynicism

Poster from outside a Japanese store

As I write this, the clock is about to strike midnight. Here in Japan, Christmas day is all but over. But from my Facebook feed I can see that UK folk are just sitting down to roast dinner.  In the States… I don’t know, I guess you’re watching the Super Bowl?

Anyway, my point is that in Japan Christmas has come and gone. Here everyone is moving onwards to New Years now. And I’m moving on too. But not away from Christmas. No, I’m moving away from cynicism.

I think I’ve alluded a few times in recent posts to the grip that cynicism has had on me recently. It’s always came fairly easy to me, but in the build up to Japan it kinda took over my thinking a bit. (And by ‘a bit’ I mean ‘a lot.’) I was cynical about people’s interest in what I was going to be doing in Japan, doubting whether folk cared about me.

I allowed feelings of bitterness to come into my heart. Bitterness towards God and towards others. I guess most people couldn’t tell, but others bore the brunt of that bitterness. I was, to be truthful, kinda a jerk a lot of the time.

Shortly after I arrived in Japan I really felt God call me out on that through a number of means. One of them was a blog post entitled ‘Starting Now? The End to the Cynicism’ It’s full of quotable lines like this,

The thing is: The cynics, they can only speak of the dark, of the obvious, and this is not hard. For all it’s supposed sophistication, it’s cynicism that’s simplistic. In a fallen world, how profound is it to see the cracks?

It really challenged me, made me see how lame being cynical and critical was and made me want to indeed put an end to the cynicism in my life.

The thing is that somehow I wasn’t ready. I wanted to change, but I couldn’t see exactly how. Just how do you lay cynicism aside?

And anyway, this year has given me plenty of reasons to be cynical. The sudden death of my father and the unanswered prayers that came with that tops the list for sure. But also I’ve seen more clearly the brokenness of this world, and the depths of my own sinfulness––and how my tendency to selfishness and foolishness contributes to that brokenness. Cynicism seems more reasonable than hopefulness.

Except it’s Christmas. And this Christmas I’ve been digging deep. I’ve had to, because the general festivities haven’t felt very fun. And so this year I’ve also seen more clearly the power of the good news of Christmas to break through my cynical heart––to change me . . . to change Japan.

This advent I’ve been reading John Piper’s ‘The Dawning of Indestructible Joy.’ It ends with a Christmas sermon on that famous angelic announcement, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people on whom His favor rests.” Piper’s point is that it is the wonder of God’s plan to restore us to a place of peace with Him leads us to be peace makers with others.

‘Continually cultivate a sense of amazement that in spite of all your sins, God has forgiven you through Christ. Be amazed that you have peace with God. It’s this sense of amazement, that I, a sinner, have peace with God, that makes the heart tender, kind, and forgiving.’

So here it is now December 26th. Japan is moving on from Christmas, and I’m moving on from cynicism. Because the coming of Jesus was the advent of indestructible joy. For me, this year, the birth of Christ was the death of cynicism.

Merry Christmas!

(Yes that post was a bit messy. But come on, it’s Christmas! Or at least it was!)

This year I’m focussing on the real meaning of Christmas (food)

There are now only nine sleeps till Christmas, and you know what that means, right? Yup, Kentucky Friend Chicken! At least in Japan it does.

A KFC Christmas Bucket

Now as a Brit this is one aspect of Japanese culture that I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to. I mean, come on . . . KFC? Seriously? That’s not what Christmas is about. Christmas is about a proper roast dinner: roast turkey, roast potatoes, pigs-in-blankets, stuffing, and of course literal pints of gravy. Followed up with some Christmas pudding with custard, and then mince pies.

But not in Japan. KFC have pulled off a move of evil marketing genius and somehow convinced the entire Japanese nation that a Family Bucket with a side of strawberry cream cake is the traditional food to eat at Christmas. I am impressed and appalled in equal measure.

So this year I’m seeking to address the issue of Christmas food in Japan.

Kinda . . .

Because here’s the thing: the thing I want most this Christmas is my dad’s Christmas dinner. See that was his meal. He did the whole thing, pretty much single-handed. And it was always insanely good. I guess maybe those years in the army helped, because the Christmas roast operation was a sight to behold and a delight for the belly.

But I won’t get to eat my dad’s Christmas roast this year. Or any year for that matter.

I was talking to a friend about this and she suggested that I use this as an opportunity to go deeper into the real meaning of Christmas. So that’s what I’m doing this year. I’m thinking through the Christmas stuff I’m missing this year, thinking through to the meaning beneath.

Starting with food. Partly because the KFC thing has weirded me out again, and partly because I’ve realized that food is one part of Christmas that I have never really thought about.

I mean, just what is the meaning of Christmas food? What does eating until you can’t move have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Does it?

I think it does. I just think that I’ve tended to not notice the meaning of Christmas food because Christmas has always been a really fun time for me. A fun, festive holiday season to finish off the year. In the UK that means chicken covered in gravy, in Japan it’s the colonel’s secret recipe. And if I’m honest, I’m actually a fan of both (and in Japan you can get your chicken wings with earl grey tea, which is a win in my book). So if I really tried, I probably could get through Christmas day on a high of chicken and cake.

But what about after that? What about New Year’s Day… Without my Dad. Easter…without my Dad. My Dad’s birthday… Without. My. Dad. It doesn’t matter how much fun I have this Christmas––and everything ‘fun’ will doubtless be tinged with sorrow––I still have to face 2015… Without my Dad.

No, I need something more substantial than turkey. I need something more satisfying than mince pies. I need a saviour. I need God. And the overwhelming good news of Christmas––the meaning of Christmas (and Christmas food)––is that the birth of Jesus Christ was God giving Himself for us to feed our souls on.

This then is the message I want to focus on this Christmas, when the Christmas music is stopped and KFC takes away the Colonel’s Christmas hat:

Christmas doesn’t mean we get to feed on fried chicken and strawberry cream cake. And it doesn’t mean we get to feed on roast turkey and Christmas pudding. Christmas means we get to feast on Christ.

“Whoever feeds on me will never go hungry.”

That’s Jesus: the guy who turned a snack into a feast, and water into wine. Miracles pointing to the deeper truth that He is the bread of life. If we go to Him, we never go hungry.

Never.

No. Matter. What.

Because unlike KFC in Japan, Jesus ‘the bread of life’ Christ is indeed for life, not just for Christmas.

“We need to feed our souls, too.” Why I’m super-pleased with the painting a friend send me.

The other day I got a surprise in the post. A big chunky brown envelope. When I opened it up this is what I found:

IMG_7548

Amazing eh? I love it. Just straight-up love it!

It was from my friend Tim in the UK. We’re actually yet to meet in person, but he’s a super-passionate, super-creative, super-generous dude. Hence the painting. I asked Tim about it and this is what he said,

“As I prayed about the painting, God gave me the images. The Lion, with His roar warring on behalf of the people, alongside the Lamb bringing redemption, and hope arising!”

That’s what the Japanese means: ‘hope.’ So appropriate in so many ways. I feel like at the moment hope is what my soul is feeding on, and this painting helps me do that. A weird phrase perhaps, so let me explain.

I recently read a short book (well technically an excerpt from an upcoming book) by Makoto Fujimura called ‘On Becoming Generative.’ In it he relates a time when his wife bought some flowers, and he got angry at her because they were living pretty close to the bread line and they couldn’t afford to buy flowers. Her response floored him, and to be honest it fairly floored me too.

“We need to feed our souls, too.”

It floored me, because it’s a truth that’s been pressing in on me over the past few months. But I haven’t been able to really pin it down. That phrase summed it all up, “We need to feed our souls, too.”

I mean I knew that it was important to keep my soul joyful. After 31 years of life I’ve picked that much up. That was the main reason for starting up this blog. I wanted to make sure I stayed in touch with folk like you. And I wanted to encourage people to stay in touch–like really in touch–with the other missionary folk they know around the world.

But the practicalities of keeping my soul well fed in this strange and wonderful country of Japan . . . I hadn’t really nailed that down.

Which is odd, because ‘feeding souls’ – well, you could say that’s what I came to Japan to do. Teaching people to feed their souls on Jesus. That is after all what Jesus calls people to do,

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

Now it’s not often that I forget to feed my belly (and for ‘often’ read ‘ever’). But I’m a bit of a muppet, and I can easily forget to feed my own soul. I need near-constant reminding to keep feeding on the bread of life. I need pointers . . . I need paintings.

Paintings that speak of redemption. Paintings that stir my heart to hope afresh. Paintings that show that ancient promise: ‘Immanuel,’ God with us.

Yes, I need paintings. Because I need to feed my soul, too.

So, basically what I’m trying to say is, thanks for the painting Tim. I love it!

Omiyage: the reason why travelling light in Japan is next to impossible

I’m heading down to Tokyo tomorrow for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, and after that I’m taking a break from study to meet up with friends. I’m only going for a week, and so I had planned to travel light. I’ve gotten fairly good at that over the last few years and was looking forward to cramming everything I need into a medium-sized shoulder-bag.

But then I remembered . . .

In Japan travelling light is near-impossible. For one simple reason:

Omiyage

If you don’t know much Japanese then you might be thinking I’m referring to some kind of mystical force barrier. Or maybe an offering you have to make to pacify the crows.

Not quite. Omiyage is kinda the Japanese equivalent of ‘souvenir’ or ‘gift.’ Except that there’s a whole load of culture tied up in that word. Culture that, to be honest, I still don’t fully understand.

So anywho, here’s what happened when I tried to do my packing.

lots of omiyage next to my bag

 

Nope, that’s not an optical illusion. My omiyage was the same size as all my clothes and stuff.

Looks like I’m going to need a bigger bag.

Because there’s quite a lot of expectations when it comes to omiyage. I remember one time hanging with some folk in Japan, talking about one of our friends who was on a 2-day trip to (if I remember correct) Korea for a conference. Someone said, “I wonder what omiyage he’ll bring back.” I suggested that maybe he wouldn’t bring any back. Like maybe he wouldn’t have time to buy any. The look I received in return was somewhere between pity, disdain, and utter confusion.

My understanding is that giving omiyage is part of how you express your thanks and appreciation to people. It’s a way of letting people join in with the experiences you have whilst you’re away from them. Kind of like saying, “I really wish you could have been there with me, and I’m sorry for not being around to help you when you needed me.” In a way that’s a very good thing for someone like me, because expressing all that stuff in Japanese is much harder than handing over a box a chocolates.

Plus some of the folk I’m meeting up with I haven’t seen for literal years. I’m really excited to see them, and I’d be bringing gifts anyway. So I’m not really complaining about the whole gift-giving culture. Except I do feel a bit unsure at times whether I’ve given enough (or possible too little, but on my budget I doubt it). Plus I know for some people it can become a real burden. Putting aside the need to double your luggage size, omiyage are often not very cheap, especially if you have to buy them for a whole bunch of folk.

Then there’s the fact that Japan can create trains that travel at 500kph and yet somehow still be one of the most inefficient countries on the planet when it comes to packaging. I guess the idea is, ‘If something’s worth wrapping, it’s worth wrapping twice.’ The problem is that makes it really, really hard to travel light. And I like to travel light.

But I guess that’s part of the point of moving to another culture. Sometimes I have to make compromises. And sometimes I have to make those compromises whilst I’m still working out how and why things work the way they do.

Still I shouldn’t complain too much. I am after all, going on holiday.

 

But how about you? Had any similar experiences? Or can you shed any light on omiyage-culture?

 

Fighting crows with cheddar (or how common grace helps me deal with culture stress).

This has been a week of the unexpected. Unexpected trials and unexpected joys.

None of them particularly huge, but that’s kinda the point of this post. Sometimes it’s the little things that make living overseas stressful, and sometimes it’s the little things that take that stress away.

OK, here’s what happened…

 

On Monday my friend Tre took me along to the nearby Costco store to stock up some essentials. We eat some freebies, buy super-sized goods and head to the car park. As we’re putting our shopping into the car I turn around to see a crow taking a big beakfull out of my minced pork multi-pack.

That’s right, a crow had swooped into the two of us, hopped into the trolley, and was eating my freshly purchased raw meat.

Then it flew off like an utter punk coward. I mean, if you’re going to steal a man’s meat, at least have the stones to fight him for it.

 

I have ranted about the crows in Japan a bit before. But it’s worth re-mentioning that they are quite simply living embodiments of everything wrong in this world . . . with wings.

Honestly, they drive me insane. They’re everywhere, squawking away, and they swoop down on you from behind and try to peck you in the back of the head.

A Japanese crow

Look at it, hiding there in the shadows . . .

In a way, Japanese crows represent the culture stress I experience in Japan.

I saw ‘stress’ rather than ‘shock’ because I think there’s an important difference there. Some aspects of living in Japan really are shocking when you first arrive. And they take a little while to get used to. But other tough aspects of living in Japan never go away. And I don’t think I’ll ever get fully used to them. It’s not that they’re surprising, or odd, it’s that they’re really annoying.

For instance, leading up to the crow incident, I had two days in a row where I was asked the same question by a Japanese person. It’s a question I am often asked when people hear that I’m from the UK.

“Is it true that British food is horrible?”

Because you know that’s an acceptable thing to say to a person you’ve just met.

My point is that by Monday afternoon my culture stress meter was on the rise.

 

But by the grace of God I was able to overcome that stress.

And by ‘grace of God’ I mean ‘mature cheddar cheese.’

Because Costco had cheese. Mature cheddar cheese.

A beautiful block of mature cheddar cheese

Yes, it was twice as much as it’d cost in the UK. No, I don’t regret buying it at all.

Because cheese is amazing. And mature cheddar is the undisputed champion of cheese. If I were to have to compare cheddar cheese to a Street Fighter 2 character (and I kinda have to in order to satisfy a promise I made), it would be Ryu. Sure occasionally you’ll play around with Blanka/Brie and there’s also that one weird friend who claims to genuine prefer Zangief/Red Leicester . . . but deep down we all know that Ryu/Cheddar is the only sensible choice. No pretense. No fanciness. Just straight-up-dragon-punch-you-in-the-mouth brilliance. (See Priss, told you I could do it).

Anywho, I’m aware that the cross-section of people who love both British cheese and 90s beat em ups is probably quite small, so I’ll get back to the whole culture stress point.

 

Here’s the thing. I believe that everything good in this world comes from God. He gives all of it to us. And we’re meant to enjoy it. It’s meant to de-stress us.

Laughing with friends until your sides hurt . . . kicking your way through piles of autumn leaves . . . getting giddy with excitement over the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron . . . melting cheddar cheese over a bagel . . . all of these are good gifts from a good God. And all of them have helped me to deal with the stress of trying to live for Jesus in Japan.

Yes, I absolutely believe in the power and importance of prayer. I believe in the need to be reminded of the simple amazing truths that make up the good news of Jesus Christ. And I believe that the main battles I face are battles of my own heart. That’s a large part of writing this blog: to encourage folk like you to encourage folk like me.

Yup, words have the power to strengthen souls.

And so does cheese.

No seriously. Because cheese is a physical reminder of the fact that God cares for me and that He provides good gifts. And when I’m stressed that’s the truth I most need to remember. When it feels like the world is against me mature cheddar says, “God is for you.” It reminds me not to focus on all the negative stuff, but to enjoy the good stuff. To give thanks. Be grateful. Smile.

 

So there you have it. When crows attack, I fight back with cheese!

 

****

OK I’m feeling a bit vulnerable having exposed all my crazy, so it’s sharing time.

What are the little things that help you to battle stress? What is your equivalent of mature cheddar? (And don’t say Red Leicester!)

My Japanese sucks! Do I give up or grow up? (lessons in language learning from Rocky Balboa)

I’ve been studying Japanese for over 6 years now. And in total I’ve spent over 2 years of that actually in Japan.

So you might think that my Japanese language is pretty good. I used to think so too (although I’d be sure to play that down).

But the other day I listened to a recording of myself.

Boy, do I suck!

Seriously, I’m not trying to be humble anymore. I have realized that I still genuinely suck at Japanese.

This week I started a new course at my language school where I prepare a speech on some topic related to Christianity. Then in the class I give the speech, and then listen back to it with my teacher giving advice on how to not suck so much.

Monday’s class was pretty brutal because I tried to go just from brief notes.

Tuesday’s class I went with a full script prepared. My teacher stopped the recording every 15 seconds to ask me to pronounce words properly.

Today I thought would be OK because we would just be going over an essay I had handed in the night before.

Here’s some of the mistakes I made.

IMG_0673.JPG

I now know how Rocky’s felt after his first fight against Klubber Lang.

But, like Rocky, I’m not throwing in the towel. No, I’m calling for a rematch. And Japanese, you can pity me all you want… Because I’m about to start my training montage.

That’s right, it’s on.

It. Is. On.

Because the thing about realizing you’re not as good as you thought you were is that it gives you a choice:

Give up or grow up.

That’s the choice I face now, and it’s the choice Rocky faced.

And I’ve decided to follow Rocky’s example. I’m going to grow up.

In case it’s been a while since you saw Rocky 3, allow me to remind you of the story.

Rocky is champ. He’s held the title for a while and has successfully defended it a number of times. Then he’s challenged by Klubber Lang. He accepts the fight because he thinks he’s unbeatable.

He gets beat. Bad.

That’s when he discovers his team has been protecting him. Only accepting easy challenges.

Why? Because Rocky’s lost that crucial element. He no longer has ‘the eye of the tiger.’ He’s lost his hunger to be the best he can be. That’s why he got pounded by Klubber Lang.

So now Rocky has a choice: give up, or grow up. Throw in the towel and walk away, or throw himself into training and get back in the ring.

Cue epic training montage.

Back to reality, and this week I have realized that I really am not as good at Japanese as I thought I was. I’ve been doing OK because I haven’t been challenged. Maybe even (dare I admit it?) I’ve lost my hunger. I do not have ‘the eye of the tiger.’

So I face that choice:

Give up, or grow up.

To be honest, I’m tempted by the first option. I mean seriously, it’s been six years!And my Japanese is good enough for most situations.

And as much fun as a training montage is to watch, the training itself is neither glamorous or easy. Working on your weaknesses means constantly having your failings highlighted. That’s not much fun. It’d be easier to just coast at the level I have.

But, as I mentioned before, my dad didn’t teach me to give up. And God doesn’t tell me to give up, but to give my best. Not to impress other people (good job, because my Japanese a long way from being impressive) but because it pleases my Heavenly Father, as I know it would also please my earthly one.

“Whatever you do, do at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, and not for people.”

(Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 3:23)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some training to do…

IMG_0680.JPG